May 12, 2015
White House spinmeisters were in full damage-control mode Monday after Saudi Arabia announced that King Salman would not be attending a Camp David summit expressly arranged to reassure him and other U.S. Arab allies that an impending nuclear agreement with Iran is not coming at their expense.

“The Saudis are sending the people in their system who are responsible for these portfolios,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on a conference call late Monday, referring to the fact that Salman’s son, Mohammed, and the crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, would be coming instead of the 79-year-old leader. This is the “exact right group of people around the table” Rhodes said, to discuss how to strengthen U.S. security cooperation with the Arab monarchies across the Persian Gulf from Iran.

But with only two of six heads of state from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – the rulers of Kuwait and Qatar — in attendance at this week’s meetings, it’s fair to ask whether the word “summit” is appropriate. It’s also questionable whether the remedies on hand in terms of greater U.S. security cooperation and intra-GCC coordination can cure what threatens these small autocratic states.

The Barack Obama administration is having a difficult time convincing its traditional allies in the Middle East that a nuclear deal with Iran will enhance their security. These countries fear that Iran will continue to advance toward a possible nuclear weapons capability and that the sanctions relief that will accompany an agreement will only enable the Islamic Republic to meddle more aggressively in regional conflicts.

Behind their anxiety, however, are a number of factors that are beyond Washington’s control.

The Arab world is going through an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy that has torn apart four countries  — Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen — with no political or military solutions in sight.

In three of these countries — Syria, Iraq and Yemen — Iran has intervened to varying degrees in opposition to Sunni Muslim forces that have received Saudi and other Arab support. Iran is exploiting conflicts that stem from poor governance, climate change, ethnic discrimination  and, in the case of Iraq, a poorly thought-out U.S. invasion that overturned centuries of Sunni control.

Throughout this turmoil, Arab monarchies have remained relatively stable but there are no guarantees they will remain so. All are confronting deep-seated economic and social challenges that contribute to justifiable feelings of insecurity on the part of governing elites.

As Mathew Burrows, director of the Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Atlantic Council, has noted   “one-quarter to one-third of the population in the small Gulf states are between the ages of 15 and 29, with unemployment hovering between 17 and 24 percent.”

In Saudi Arabia, the demographics are even more daunting. More than 60 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population is under the age of 30, according to Burrows, but many new jobs have gone to non-Saudis who are better educated and have a stronger work ethic. Youth unemployment in Saudi Arabia is 30 percent for men and 35 percent for women, Burrows writes.

For decades, these countries have been able to stem popular discontent through generous social welfare payments while still being able to afford to spend billions of dollars on U.S. weapons systems. But recent reductions in oil prices caused in part by rising U.S. production threaten to undermine the ability of GCC countries to stave off unrest indefinitely and to fund expensive external interventions against Iran-backed foes such as the Saudi-led war in Yemen against the Houthis.

In this environment, it is easy to see Iran as a scapegoat for everything that has gone wrong in the Middle East. Iran provides ample ammunition by trumpeting its support for “resistance” movements, its influence in Arab capitals and its low regard for monarchial rule.

U.S. officials argue that Iran’s “destabilizing actions in the region” – as Rhodes put it on Monday – make a nuclear deal even more vital since an agreement is designed to keep Iran from building a nuclear weapon for at least a decade. But Arab monarchs fear that Iran will continue its intervention in Arab affairs and that the Obama administration will not always take the side of the GCC in regional conflicts.

There are no formal defense treaties between the U.S. and the GCC countries and there will be none announced this week, acknowledged Rob Malley, the National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region.

Instead, according to Rhodes, “there will be some form of statement emerging from the summit that reflects the common positions of the United States and the GCC on a range of issues.”

But on what issues do the parties agree? The U.S. has pushed for a cease-fire in Yemen even though the Houthis remain in control of a large amount of territory. There are also differences about how hard to fight the Assad regime in Syria and which factions to support against the group that calls itself the Islamic State.

That leaves the likely “deliverables” at Camp David to pledges to make missile defense systems more inter-operable – a perennial topic – and to help the GCC states fend off cyber-attacks like the one that crippled the Saudi oil giant Aramco in 2012.

According to Malley, the U.S. goal is to get “the GCC States in a position where they could deal with greater confidence and self-confidence and strength with Iran, not in order to perpetuate a never-ending conflict, but to engage Iran to try to resolve the problems of the region.”

But self-confidence comes from strong, healthy societies, not F-15s.

Given the tensions with the GCC over Iran and other issues, it’s unlikely that President Obama will antagonize his guests by repeating comments he made in an interview last month that pointed out their internal challenges and the fact that the U.S. could only assist them against external threats.

As a result, according to Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies “it seems to me that where they most want reassurance is where the U.S. is both least able and most unwilling to provide it.”

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Voice of America.

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

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